By Robert W. Bone
After 50 or more voyages on passenger liners and cruise ships, most of which I have enjoyed, those that I remember most are the few taken on Cunard Lines.
Cunard and I go way back – some 55 years back, actually, when Cunard was still a British-owned company -- and probably much farther back than any crew member of a Cunard ship today.
The company played a crucial role in the life of a naïve young American about to embrace a wider view of the world. At age 25, and almost on a whim, I decided to make my first trip abroad.
I sailed from New York City to England aboard a smoky, coal-burning 35-year-old Cunard ship named the RMS Scythia. Comfort was minimal, and although it took nine days to sail to Liverpool, I loved every minute of it, and wished it had taken longer.
Cunard Lines have come a long way since my journey from New York to Liverpool in the fall of 1957. Stabilizers were unknown and the ocean was often rough. I shared a four-berth cabin with three other guys. Since there was no porthole, we never knew what the weather was like until we made our way up to an open deck.
The Scythia offered three categories of travel: First Class, whose members were said to live in some mysterious garden in the forward part of the ship which we called the "Sharp End"; Cabin Class, which occupied the Limbo-like middle portion; and then our own modest Tourist Class. Our dining room, lounge and a small section of open deck, were at the stern. Nevertheless a congenial, multicultural group formed among these passengers, and we soon began calling ourselves the "Blunt End Kids."
Most of us were young. There were British returning home after a summer in the U.S., and Americans en route to fall classes in England. Unlike either of these categories, I had no idea what I was going to do at voyage's end. I had bought a one-way ticket.
The food was strictly English. I learned not to routinely shake salt on my already salty spinach, especially from a single-hole salt cellar, a type this neophyte traveler had never seen. At night we had an orchestra of sorts. It consisted of four gray-haired men on violin, piano, drums and saxophone. They regaled us with tunes that included "A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation" and "You Came a Long Way from Saint Louie."
I learned to dance the schottische on the Scythia. I also learned that it was easy and fun to run up stairways between the decks in rhythm with the downward pitch of the ship as it plowed the heavy North Atlantic swells. The Blunt End Kids did not rate an elevator.
Our lungs were full of bracing sea air, and our legs were strong. In my exuberance one midnight, and unknown to anyone else aboard, I climbed to the top of the mast to look down on what seemed to be a tiny toy boat bobbing about in the midst of a great, dark sea.
Over the subsequent half century, I have continued to travel from time to time by ship, always with a greater degree of comfort and luxury than was provided by the Scythia. I began to enjoy staterooms that included a porthole, then later a genuine window.
I discovered private bathrooms, wide double beds, air conditioning and bright lighting. Telephones began to appear in the cabins, then radios, and finally TVs. The food began to improve and so did the entertainment. There were big bands, singers, dancers, comics, magicians, jugglers, ventriloquists, etc. Ships began to sport elevators, discos, movie theaters, shops, libraries and more.
In October, 1986 I was again seduced by Cunard, embarking on what turned out to be a harrowing trip for some on the Queen Elizabeth 2. She made her way from New York to Southampton through gale-force winds and heavy seas.
It was the QE 2's last voyage before being "re-engined," refitted from steam to diesel power. Before it ended, one of her two sets of stabilizers became inoperative, and so when she rolled, she rolled more one way than the other, a most unsettling feeling.
The author James Michener was at our table one evening, quite frail and walking with a cane. All the rest of us felt at least as unsteady as he. It was difficult for anyone to make headway on the rolling decks. Dishes broke, wine and caviar spilled, and in the staterooms, some passengers put their mattresses on the floor to keep from rolling out of bed.
This was not always helpful; one friend was struck in the head by a telephone during the night. My wife and I recall going up to the dance floor, where we found that we tended to fall into the bar on one roll and into the band on the other.
Strangely enough, we enjoyed that trip, too, and unlike many others, we made it to every meal.
And then, a couple of years ago, I was aboard Cunard again, this time returning across the Atlantic from England to the U.S. on the Queen Mary 2. Launched only in 2004, the QM2 was until fairly recently the largest passenger vessel in the world.
Perhaps she is still the largest with an Old World sense of dignity, because the ship eschews rock walls, surf machines and the like. In any case, she is several times larger than the Scythia. Circumnavigating her Promenade Deck means walking more than a mile.
A porthole? A window? No sir. We had two deck chairs on a commodious private verandah attached to our stateroom. If we wanted to check the weather or breathe genuine sea air, we simply opened the glass door. If we want to sit out there for a while, we first took a drink from our fridge, and then phoned to ask our steward to deliver a tray of canapés to the stateroom.
Bunk beds? Absolutely not. We had a king-size mattress. A radio? Nope. It's a color TV, with channels carrying programs originating on the ship, and some with movies, or with satellite reception of CNN, and Britain's BBC. Our private bathroom had room enough for two. There was also mood lighting, an ample couch and a walk-in closet that seemed about the size of my entire living space on the Scythia.
Several restaurants offer varying cuisine on the QM2. One favorite for lunch is the Golden Lion, a British-style pub where fish and chips are a mainstay. And there is room service, offering almost anything edible at any hour of the day or night, for no extra charge.
There are many more areas available for exploration: bars, lounges in different decorative themes, theaters (yes, plural, there are three, including a planetarium, the only one afloat), a showroom, a computer/Internet room, a library -- that, too, reputedly the largest afloat – a spa, a game room and probably some others I never quite discovered.
The number of shops and public rooms on the QM2 sometimes gave me the impression that I was exploring a world-class urban mall. But despite all the lounges, etc., it was sometimes difficult to find a quiet corner. Our passenger list numbered more than 2,500, just about full capacity.
In the QM2 library, I found a couple of pictures and some information about my beloved Scythia. She turns out to have sailed her maiden voyage in 1921, and was broken up for scrap in '58, less than a year after my own youthful voyage.
In the 1950s, the Scythia was one of Cunard's dozen or so ships. Today the fleet consists of only three: The Queen Mary 2, the Queen Victoria, and the new Queen Elizabeth, which went into service in 2010. The old QE2 took on a new role as a permanently moored hotel in Dubai after serving for 40 years.
Cunard's previous record for longevity turns out to have been held by the Scythia, which served for 37 years, some of them under wartime conditions.
One day on the Queen Mary 2 I had the opportunity to talk with the master of the vessel, Commodore Bernard Warner. He is never called the captain, but is often referred to in hushed and respected tones as "the commodore," since he is the most senior captain in the Cunard fleet. Perhaps because I am older than he, when I began to ask, "Tell me, commodore ..." he smiled and said, "Just call me Bernie."
Cunard likes to claim that today’s three fleet members are not strictly a cruise ships, but vessels designed for line voyages, traveling one way from one place to another, mainly on the Atlantic Ocean between the U.S. and the U.K. Yet the ships do offer cruises, too, such as the ones around South America, plus a round-the-world jaunt at least once a year.
All of the Queens and other modern cruise ships I have enjoyed over the last half-century have been wonderful experiences, though they can't quite give me that king-of-the-world thrill I felt while riding at the top of the Scythia's mast that night in 1957.
Cruise columnist Robert W. Bone, the author of several guidebooks, lives in Walnut Creek, California. He maintains web sites at robertbone.com and travelpieces.com plus a blog at bonevoyage.us. He’s the real deal…his travel stories have appears in Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage Times, Arizona Daily Star, Arizona Republic, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bergen Record, Boston Globe, Buffalo News, Calgary Herald, Chicago Sun Times, Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Des Moines Register, Detroit Free Press, Edmonton Journal, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, International Herald-Tribune, Long Island Newsday, Los Angeles Daily News, Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, New Orleans Times-Picayune, New York Newsday, Orange County Register, Portland Oregonian, Rocky Mountain News, Sacramento Bee, Saint Petersburg Times, San Antonio Express News, San Diego Union Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, San Jose Mercury News, San Juan Star, Seattle Times, Spokane Spokesman-Review, Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, Vancouver Province, the Washington Post, Airways Inflight, Arco Travel Club, Balance, Car & Travel, Cruise & Vacation Views, Diversion, EnCompass, Flightlines. Flying Colors. Going Places, Hawaii Hospitality, HawaiiWestways, Hawaiian Airlines Magazine, Home & Away, Honolulu Magazine, Hyatt’s Hawaii, Journeys, Mainliner, Midwest Living,. Modern Bride, National Geographic Traveler, New Choices, New West, Pacific Northwest, Passages, Pleasant Hawaii Magazine, Popular Photography, Recommend Worldwide, RSVP, Signature, Travel & Leisure, Travel 50 & Beyond, Travel Advisor, Travel Report, Travel Smart. Travel Today, TravelAge West, Travel-Holiday, Travel Weekly, United Mainliner, Vacations, Westways, America Online, Cruise Diva, Honolulu Advertiser USAtoday.com, PhotoPoint Magazine, TravelLady Magazine, and WatchBoom.com. He can be reached at robertbone.com.
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